The Greasy Poll

The Institute of Politics (IOP), Harvard’s premiere organization for directing students’ political passions, itself needs direction. As it stands now, the IOP is an irregular patchwork of programs. Some are brilliant successes. The IOP Fellows program, for example, is nationally unique in allowing students to form close bonds with inspirational political figures, while policy groups are a fantastic way of bringing together similarly-interested students for research and discussion. Despite these individual successes, however, the IOP has struggled to address some of its most important problems. Today, the IOP will elect a new leadership, and regardless of the outcome, the winning ticket will need to be open to change and committed to reforming the Institute with the right priorities in mind.

Foremost among the issues facing the IOP is its not-undeserved reputation for being populated by self-proclaimed political nuts (myself included) and dead-set future presidents. Most are white, male, and from reasonably well-off backgrounds. This is significant not because such specimens are not dedicated and intelligent people—they usually are—but because diverse people bring with them diverse views, vital to a healthy political system. If the new leadership wants to fulfill the IOP’s goal of inspiring all backgrounds of students to public service, it needs to do more to spark the interest of under-represented groups.

This means more than posting some ethnically-diverse photos on its website. The participation of women has risen dramatically over the past few years, but minority involvement remain largely elusive. One problem is that Harvard undergraduates are scattered among so many disparate campus groups that the IOP finds itself competing for priority with an endless list of ethnic and political societies.

The Institute has not yet tackled this problem effectively. Occasionally, outside groups plan IOP events—such as the Black Students Association’s sponsorship of Toni Morrison’s visit to the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum last spring—but the relationships are short-lived. The new leadership needs to form long-term institutional ties to diverse student groups instead of repeated brief encounters. In order to do this, the IOP should be willing to take on the role of patron for well-established student groups that just need a more regular source of funding and space for their events. This alone would diversify the undergraduate population wandering in and out of the building and bring fresh blood into contact with the regulars.

This idea has been resisted on the grounds that it might cause the IOP to lose its “identity.” But the Institute’s failure to inspire wide scale minority involvement clearly calls for a new strategy. The most recent initiative to establish ties with several black student groups, for example, will not get off the ground if the IOP continues to assert full control over its old “identity.” Fulfilling such a role need not diminish the IOP’s own priorities and programs; it would merely expand its range.

Another way to welcome new members is to encourage that magic “sense of community” that so many students seek out. The executive leadership should draw on the success of the Fellows program, where numerous dinners and endless loitering in the corridors have led to the existence of a quasi-social community. Establishing events such as the IOP poker night and adding a happy hour and common room could supply the social aspect that students are looking for.

Besides these sorts of social events, the most important way to draw and keep student interest is to provide real political debate. The problem is not a lack of differing views amongst IOP-goers but rather the lack of a specific forum for expressing them. This can give the Institute the feel of a cosy Democratic club. The success of events that challenge the majority view, such as Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s visit to Adam Nagourney’s study group, is a testament to the need for more open political argument.

The IOP’s Harvard Political Union (HPU) calls itself “the foremost venue for political debate at Harvard,” yet its most regular event is a weekly moderated chat with pizza—no doubt enjoyable, but somewhat missing the point. HPU Chair C.R. Sincock ’07 explained that he fears that more-formal debate, à la the Yale Political Union, would intimidate students and act as a “turn-off.” However, given that it attracts a weekly turnout of about 30 of the same students—mostly freshmen—the HPU’s current format needs to do more to stir and retain interest. A greater emphasis on intellectual debate would not detract, but rather inspire and bring in a wider range of students.

It is this kind of rigorous debate that should be at the very heart of what the IOP does. The Institute should foster an atmosphere of dynamic political discussion, where students’ core beliefs are challenged and assumptions and prejudices are threatened. This is what political engagement means.

A new President needs to be willing to open the IOP to a reform of priorities, not just structure. It is important not to disparage every aspect of the IOP. Parts of it are running with great success, but the Institute lacks a diverse community of students regularly engaging in real political debate. Encouraging this, more than a how-to guide on the slippery slog into office, would really inspire students to public service.

Juliet S. Samuel ’09 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. She is a liaison for IOP Fellow Adam Nagourney.